Methods in Human Ecology

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Course TypeCourse CodeNo. Of Credits
Foundation CoreSHE3ED1014

Semester and Year Offered:WS2019 (it varies as per requirement)

Course Team: Dr Oinam Hemlata Devi, Prof. AsmitaKabra, Dr Suresh Babu, Dr Budhaditya Das, Dr Pulak Das.

Email of course coordinator/Programme

Pre-requisites: None

Course Objectives/Description:

This course introduces the students to the various (inter)disciplinary perspectives on Human Ecology, a heterodox field that studies the multivalent relations between humans and the natural environment. Students enroll in the course fairly early on in their doctoral trajectory and the course builds grounding in the various traditions of work related to human ecology. Method here does not refer to quantitative or qualitative tools/techniques, but to epistemologies that are engaged in thinking through nature-society relations in a critical manner.

The objective of this course is to introduce PhD students to traditions of research, and prepare them to evaluate the relevance and validity of various methodological approaches in the social and ecological sciences. The following questions drive the course:

  1. How do the traditions frame environmental (and related) concerns?
  2. What are the normative and theoretical frameworks they use to understand the causes for these problems?
  3. What kind of problem-solving perspectives do they offer?

Learning Objectives:

  1. To develop understanding of various epistemological and methodological approaches of humans and their natural and built environments
  2. To develop skills of critical thinking and evaluation at multiple paradigms appropriate to their thesis showing inter/multidisciplinary perspectives
  3. To acquire methodological rigour in their research design logically and scientifically using the lens of Human Ecology
  4. To foster the values of ethical guidelines and conduct of independent research

Course Outcomes:

On successful completion of this course, students will be able to:

  1. Ability to connect perspectives from ecological and social sciences to understand complex socio-ecological issues at multiple spatial scales.
  2. Ability to think critically and analyse discourses from different epistemological traditions.
  3. Ability to apply competencies acquired to understand and address real world problems, scenarios and case studies.
  4. Ability to evaluate the reliability and relevance of evidence from textual as well as field-based sources to draw valid conclusions.
  5. Ability to design and carry out independent research on appropriate research problems.
  6. Ability to critically evaluate ideas, evidence and experiences from an open-minded and reasoned perspective.
  7. Ability to develop critical sensibility to lived experiences, with self-awareness and reflexivity of both self and society.
  8. Ability to learn values and beliefs of multiple cultures and a global perspective.
  9. Ability to use ethical practices in all work.
  10. Ability to pursue careful field-based enquiry into the ‘big questions’ of justice, well-being and sustainability in local, empirical contexts.

Description of modules:

Module 1.Interdisciplinarity in the study of the environment

This module will introduce students to the idea of interdisciplinarity by using case studies on important environmental issues and concerns like biodiversity conservation, climate change, resource governance etc. These case studies will then run as a common strand throughout the course and will be deployed for tracing specific developments in various social and natural science disciplines around these issues and themes. The objective of the module is to expose students to the overlaps and intersections between various disciplines, as well as to tensions and schisms which are generated by different ‘ways of seeing’.

Module 2. Ecosystem Structure and Functioning; Equilibrium and Non-Equilibrium Models

The idea that there is a "balance of nature" has been a tradition in Western thought that has been taken up by many natural historians and has now percolated into the very idea of ecosystems. Although not unchallenged, some ideas have stood the test of time. ‘Equilibrium’ and ‘Stability’ are not clearly defined concepts when applied to complex ecological systems in the real world. This module explores critical theory in this conceptually rich terrain.

Module 3. Political ecology perspectives: Political economy; Power and knowledge

As environmentalism has gained momentum, the idea of nature as an apolitical entity has come into question. It is in this context that the interdisciplinary field of social and political ecology has made its presence felt across the disciplines. It originates from two basic critiques of the technocratic, ahistoric and asocial understandings of nature. The first is the recognition that the environment has long been abstracted from society (or society from the environment) with grievous consequences, and therefore it is necessary to tie together humans, non-humans, and the biophysical world in a holistic interpretive framework. The second critique builds on the assumption that if environment and society are intricately linked, then environmental issues are simultaneously technical, social and political. This course will build the conceptual-theoretical base for a political ecological perspective on concerns around nature/society, analyze politics and movements related to the knowledge, control and governance of nature, and finally, consider the technologies through which nature is constantly given shape.

Module 4. Energy and material flow in society: Modeling approaches

This session discusses Energy (HANPP and others) and Material Flow, thermodynamics of economic production and Modeling approaches to understanding issues in ecological economics. The students are expected to review through methodological development in these areas appreciate ‘pluralism’ that has become a central theme in ecological economics.

Module 5. Frameworks in historical method: Production, resource use

This module will discuss the beginning of environmental history (its triggers- environmental movements, academic inquisitiveness), parentage (history, geography, economics), maturing of the field (insights from ecology and other disciplines), the attempt to provide frameworks (mode of production, mode of resource use), relationships/engagements with other disciplines and environmentalism, and the pitfalls of engaging across discipline and with a wider audience.

Module 6. Events, processes and the longue duree: Interrogating colonial environmental histories

This module will discuss the long debated issue of events and processes in environmental) history and the concept of the longue duree in the writing of environmental history. In the process some important studies on colonialism as the watershed in environmental history of the global south will be introduced.

Module 7. Investigating embedded knowledge systems

This module will enable the students to deal with the practical, ethical and theoretical importance of indigenous knowledge systems and its subsequent interactions with scientific knowledge. The methodologies and experiences of knowledge systems generated by people in different context at different time and space would create a range of interpretations that can draw out meaning and connectivity of exploring and sharing social realities and its continuation.

Module 8. Understanding state, market and society linkages

This module will expose the student to perspectives in development economics, environmental economics and political economy to understand the relationship between state, market and society. The students will be familiarized with the post-world war II emergence of the developmental state, the move towards globalization, discontents with globalization and debates on sustainability from the perspectives of neoclassical economics and heterodox political economy approaches.

Module 9. Poverty, livelihoods and the Environment

This module will familiarize students with theoretical approaches to the study of linkages between the environment and local livelihoods, especially in the agrarian and rural context in the Global South. It will trace the linkages between land, labour and livelihoods through the frameworks of income poverty, livelihoods approaches, vulnerability and resilience, theories of access and powers of exclusion. This will help the students to engage with interdisciplinary perspectives that examine the role of institutions, laws, policies and practices governing diverse environmental resource based livelihoods (farming, agropastoral, forest-based, swidden and fishing-based).

Module 10. Institutional and other approaches to the study of commons

The module will trace the evolution of various theories of common property resources (CPRs) and collective action. The objective is to expose research scholars to perspectives on the causes of environmental degradation and solutions offered, and to familiarize them with the multiple lenses of institutional analysis, including population and resource use, and institutions and governance.

Assessment details with weights:

The course will have three types of assessment situations.

  1. Responses to modules (40%)
  2. Book Review (20%)
  3. Term paper and presentation (40%)

Reading List:

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  • Agrawal, A. (2004). Indigenous and scientific knowledge: Some critical comments. retrieved from
  • Berkes, Fikret, David Feeny, Bonnie J. McCay and James M. Acheson. 1989. ‘The Benefits of the Commons’. Nature. 340 (6229): 91-93.
  • Braudel, Fernand, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II, Volume I, California, 1995.
  • Chang, HJ (2003). Rethinking Development Economics. London, Anthem Press.
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  • Constanza, R. and H. E. Daly (1992). "Natural Capital and Sustainable Development." Conservation Biology 6(1): 37-46.
  • Cronon, William, ‘A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative’, The Journal of American History, Vol. 78, No. 4 (Mar., 1992).
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  • Cronon, William, ‘The Uses of Environmental History’, Environmental History Review, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Autumn, 1993).
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  • Feeny, David, et al. 1990. ‘The Tragedy of the Commons: Twenty-two Years Later’. Human Ecology 18(1).
  • Ferguson, James. 2006. The Anti-Politics Machine. In Aradhana Sharma and Akhil Gupta (Eds.). The Anthropology of the State: A Reader, London: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 270—286.
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  • Grenier, L. (1998). Working with indigenous knowledge (pp.1-8; 46;63-69;87-88). New Delhi: IDRC.
  • Grove, Richard, ‘Environmental History’ in Peter Burke ed., New Perspectives on Historical Writing, Polity Press, 2001.
  • Guha, Ramchandra, ‘Writing Environmental History’, Studies in History
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  • Winiwarter, V. (2011). A socio‐metabolic transition towards sustainability? Challenges for another Great Transformation. Sustainable development, 19(1), 1-14.
  • Hall, Derek, Philip Hirsh and Tania Murray Li (2012) “Powers of Exclusion: Land Dilemmas in Southeast Asia”, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu.
  • Hardin. Tragedy of the Commons. Nature, 1969
  • J. Fairhead and M. Leach (1995), ‘False Forest History Complicit Social Analysis: Rethinking Some West African Environmental Narratives’, World Development 23(6): 1023-1035.
  • Jodha, N.S., ‘Common Property Resources and the Environmental Context: Role of Biophysical versus Social Stresses’, EPW, 30(51), 1995.
  • Kapoor, D., &Shizha, E. (2010).Indigenous Knowledge and learning in Asia/Pacific and Africa: Perspectives on Development, Education, and Culture (pp.245-259). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Leach, M., R. Mearns and I. Scoones (1999) ‘Environmental Entitlements: Dynamics and Institutions in Community-Based Natural Resource Management’. World Development 27(2):225-247.
  • LI, T. M. (2005), Beyond “the State” and Failed Schemes. American Anthropologist, 107: 383-394. doi:10.1525/aa.2005.107.3.383
  • Li, T.M. (2007). Governmentality. Anthropologica. Vol. 49, No. 2:275-281
  • M. Lawhon et al (2013), ‘Provincializing Urban Political Ecology: Towards a Situated UPE through African Urbanism’, Antipode
  • Merton, Robert K. (1972). Insiders and Outsiders: A chapter in the Sociology of Knowledge. American Jr. of Sociology, 78(1): 9-47.
  • Mortimore, Michael (1998), “Roots in the African Dust”, UK, Cambridge University Press
  • Norgaard, R. B. (1989). The case for methodological pluralism. Ecological Economics, 1(1), 37-57.
  • P. Robbins (2001), ‘Tracking Invasive Land Covers in India, or Why Our Landscapes Have Never Been Modern’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers 91 (4): 637-659.
  • Pierotti, R. (2011). A critical comment on both western science and Indigenous responses to the western scientific tradition. In Indigenous Knowledge, Ecology, and Evolutionary Biology (pp. 178-196). London: Routledge.
  • Radkau, J. (2008). Nature & Power: A Global History of the Environment, CUP
  • Ribot, J. C. and Peluso, N. L. (2003), A Theory of Access. Rural Sociology, 68: 153-181. doi:10.1111/j.1549-0831.2003.tb00133.x
  • Robbins, Paul, John Hintz and Sarah A. Moore. 2010. Environment and Society. London, John Wiley & Sons. Ltd.
  • Roughgarden, J. (2009) Is there a general theory of community ecology? Biology & Philosophy, 24, 521–529.
  • Sankar, U. (ed.) (2001), Environmental Economics – Reader, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, Oxford India (Paperback, 2002)
  • Scoones, Ian et al. Hazards and Opportunities: Farming livelihoods in dryland Africa: Lessons from Zimbabwe. London and New Jersey: Zed Books Ltd., 1996.
  • Scott, James (1998). Seeing Like a State. Connecticut, Yale University Press.
  • Seminar Magazine Issue no.613 (“Nature without Borders”; web link:
  • Sharachchandra M. Lélé, Sustainable development: A critical review, World Development, Volume 19, Issue 6, June 1991, Pages 607–621,
  • Smith,L.T. (1999). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous peoples (pp.123-155). London: Zed Books
  • T. Bassett (1988), 'The Political Ecology of the Peasant Herder Conflict in the Northern Ivory Coast’, Annals of The Association of American Geographers.
  • Worster, Donald, ‘Transformations of the Earth: Toward an Agroecological Perspective in History’, The Journal of American History, Vol. 76, No. 4 (Mar., 1990).